President Mujica, the Cut on His Nose and the Potholes of Havana / Yoani Sanchez

Image taken from
President José Mujica of Uruguay. Image taken from
It was a flying sheet of roofing that cut the nose of the Uruguayan president José Mujica. A piece of metal that fell off just as he was helping a neighbor reinforce the roof of his house. The anecdote traveled through the media and the social networks as an example of the simplicity of a leader known for his austere lifestyle. There he was, like one more farmer, trying to make sure the storm didn’t carry off the roof tiles of a house near the farm where he lived in Montevideo. Undoubtedly, an anecdote full of lessons that should be imitated by many other world leaders.

Pepe Mujica’s story made me reflect about the divorce that exists between the way of life of the leaders and the people in Cuba. The contrast is so marked, so abysmal, that it determines a good part of the mistakes they commit when making decisions. It’s not just that they live in better houses, reside in beautiful residential neighborhoods, or that they drive modern cars. No. The great difference lies in that almost nothing the authorities do has any relationship to the problems that plague our daily lives. They do not know the feeling of waiting for more than an hour at a bus stop, the annoyance of walking streets lacking streetlights or full of potholes. They haven’t the least idea of the smell of stale sweat that fills the inside of a truck where dozens of people are traveling from one village to another, nor of the clatter of horse carts which for many are the only form of transport. They have never spent a night at La Coubre terminal on the waiting list for a train ticket, nor have they had to hand over the equivalent of a monthly salary to a guard who resells the tickets to board a rickety train car.

When has a commander or general of this country entered a hard currency store to see if they are now selling hamburger meat more cheaply, and has had to leave because they don’t have enough money to buy any of the goods on the shelves? When was the last time a minister opened a refrigerator and found it full of water but lacking food? Will the president of the parliament ever sleep on a mattress patched over and over by the family’s grandmother? Will he mend his underwear to be able to continue wearing it, or use vinegar to wash his hair because there is no shampoo? What do the children of these elite know about humid late nights spent heating up the kerosene stove so it will be ready to make coffee in the morning? Have they looked up close into the face of the functionary who says “No” — almost with pleasure — when they are asking about the results of some paperwork? Have any of them had to sell peanuts to survive like so many retired elderly do the length and breadth of this country?

They cannot govern us because they do not know us. They are not able to find solutions because they have never suffered the difficulties we have. They do not represent us because they strayed too long ago into a world of privileges, comforts and luxuries. They have no idea what it means to be a Cuban today.